For the third time in a year, the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress are trying to eliminate a trailblazing law that requires new federal buildings to be largely free of fossil fuels by 2030.
But this time the effort is gaining momentum—in part because it has surprising support from mainstream energy efficiency advocacy groups in Washington D.C.
Their decision to back industry has ruffled the feathers of several environmental organizations and green building advocates, who say the law is critical to decrease America's dependence on fossil fuels. Some feel deceived.
"It was a slap in the face," said Ed Mazria, founder of the New Mexico-based Architecture 2030, a building sector advocacy group that focuses on climate change.
New York City's $19.5 billion plan to adapt to climate change may be the world's most ambitious. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg is hardly alone in trying to find ways to prepare his city for rising seas and extreme weather as the global fight to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius fades.
Roughly 20 percent of cities around the globe have developed adaptation strategies, according to a 2011 estimate by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the United States, city, county and state governments have developed more than 100 adaptation plans, a separate count by the Georgetown Climate Center found. And through a UN-financing initiative, wealthy nations have poured $11 billion into developing countries to help on adaptation in the past few years.
Experts interviewed by InsideClimate News said that unlike Bloomberg's plan—which detailed 250 climate adaptation strategies and put a price tag on most of them—few other cities have outlined specific actions or provided concrete details on how government agencies should implement initiatives or pay for them.
In 2008, Virginia resident Ruth McElroy Amundsen took her first stab at using shareholder activism to spur action on climate change—she introduced a resolution that challenged Dominion Resources Inc., Virginia's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to get more of its electricity from renewables.
Since then the 51-year-old NASA engineer and mother of two has helped spark a growing movement to pressure Dominion to respond to global warming concerns. Last month, the informal network of 20 activists achieved its biggest success yet: Shareholders representing nearly a quarter of Dominion's shares voted "yes" on a proposal to require the utility to report to investors on the financial risks that climate change poses to its business.
That wasn't enough to pass the resolution, but it was by far the highest number of "yes" votes ever cast for a climate resolution to Dominion. It was a surprising result, the activists say, because the company has been particularly resistant to climate and renewable energy policies.
California is replacing oil with cleaner-burning fuels in cars and trucks, thanks to a landmark low-carbon fuel rule, according to a recent report. But the rule's fate is uncertain amid legal chaos and a shortfall in the production of clean biofuels.
The report, conducted by researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, said California drivers saved more than two billion gallons of gasoline in the two years since the launch of the rule—about as much gas as the state uses in two months. The carbon emissions reduction is equal to taking half a million vehicles off the road.
Companies "are meeting and exceeding the standard," said Sonia Yeh, the report's lead author and a research scientist at the institute.
But the standard remains in legal limbo.
Shareholders of one of the country's biggest hotel chains have struck down a resolution that would force the company to consider replacing energy-guzzling shower heads with more efficient ones—yet its backers are claiming victory.
Although only nine percent of Choice Hotels shareholders voted in favor of the resolution, the proposal is one of a handful of global warming resolutions that companies tried to dismiss in this year's proxy season—but that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said must be put to a vote. The trend reflects continued concerns by the SEC about the business risks of climate change.
"They're enforcing their rules in a way that allows a lot more climate-related resolutions to go through to a vote," said Rob Berridge, program manager at Ceres, a coalition of sustainability focused investors with $11 trillion in assets.
Congressional lawmakers from both parties are taking a step to catalyze the nation's clean energy economy: After 32 years of restricting a crucial investment tool to expanding fossil fuels, they're pushing to open it to renewables.
Legislation is moving through both houses to tweak the tax code to let clean energy developers form a master limited partnership, or MLP, a type of publicly traded company structure not subject to corporate taxes.
For three decades, coal, oil and gas companies have used MLPs to raise hundreds of billions of dollars for pipelines, refineries and other projects. The financing vehicle is credited with helping sustain the nation's current drilling boom.
It has been more than a month now, and Amber Bartlett has had enough of hotels and apartments and trailer homes. Of crowded rooms whose thin walls amplify the bickering of her four children. Of piles of toys and clothes overflowing from drawers and suitcases. Of not knowing, day to day, where her life is headed.
She wants to be back in her five-bedroom, three-bathroom home at 16 Starlite Road North in Mayflower, Ark.
Ryan Senia, the Bartletts' next-door neighbor, is plenty ready to go home, too. For the past month the 29-year-old electrical engineer has been sleeping on a friend's couch instead of in his bed at 20 Starlite Road North. His power tools and equipment are gathering dust in his garage. His grill sits in his backyard, unused.
The Bartletts and Senia are among 21 families who were evacuated from their homes on March 29, after an ExxonMobil pipeline spilled at least 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into their neighborhood.
Federal agencies have so far not decided whether to undertake an assessment of the ecological harm caused by ExxonMobil's pipeline break, which spewed a tarry oil slick into yards, streets and creeks in a central Arkansas town.
For now, they're leaving it to state agencies to decide whether and how to quantify and counteract the environmental damage.
The rupture in the Pegasus pipeline on March 29 dumped up to an estimated 294,000 gallons of Canadian heavy crude in Mayflower, Ark.—including in a cove that flows into Lake Conway, a major fishing lake. If that estimate turns out to be correct, the Arkansas spill would be one-third the size of a 2010 Michigan pipeline spill, the worst accident of its kind in U.S. history.
When ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured last month in Mayflower, Ark., it was carrying diluted bitumen, a controversial form of oil from Canada's tar sands region. That was confirmed in a letter an Exxon lawyer wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week.
But the letter contradicts public assertions by company officials that the spilled oil was simply "heavy oil," not tar sands bitumen. It also raises, once again, the question that surfaces after every spill involving oil from Canada: Is it or isn't it diluted bitumen?
Bitumen is a semi-solid form of crude oil found in Canada's vast oil sands region, where it is found with sand, clay and water in formations dating back hundreds of millions of years. Because bitumen is so thick and tarry, producers dilute it with natural gas liquids or light oil so it can flow through pipelines. That creates a type of oil called diluted bitumen, or dilbit.
The letter Exxon sent to the EPA on April 10 was a response to the EPA's request for more information about Wabasca Heavy—the oil that poured out of a 22-foot-long gash on its Pegasus line on March 29. "Can the oil accurately be described as tar sands oil, or a type of diluted bitumen (dilbit)?" the EPA had asked in an April 5 letter to Exxon.
When ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured on March 29, the company announced that no oil had leaked into Lake Conway, a major recreational reservoir just nine-tenths of a mile from the spill site in central Arkansas.
Some oil had spilled into a "cove adjacent to" the lake, the company said, but "Lake Conway remains oil free," according to news releases Exxon issued as recently as April 5.
That position has sparked a debate over where Lake Conway—one of Arkansas' premier fishing spots—begins and ends.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel told reporters, "I don't understand where this distinction is coming from. ...The cove is part of Lake Conway."
On Saturday, Exxon acknowledged that subtlety for the first time. "There is no oil in the main body of Lake Conway," according to a news release on Apr. 6—and an Exxon spokesperson on Tuesday.